Sunday, May 23, 2010

“Why Don’t You Just Leave?” – What Keeps People in Abusive Relationships

It’s probably the most misunderstood aspect of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV): why some victims stay, or perhaps more confusing, why they escape only to go back again and again to the same abuser who has promised that he/she will change. As a society, we end up blaming the victim. Frequently I hear friends and colleagues ask me why some people stay; why they “choose” to be victims, or they comment, “they must like it on some level; maybe they’re masochistic.” No, I say patiently, it’s more complicated than that.
Indeed it is. There are a number of factors at work in any given relationship that make it hard to leave, and most often, it’s a combination of factors working together that keep a victim immobilized. Let’s look at them one by one.
“It’s not bad all the time.” Never underestimate the power of denial. The victim will convince him- or herself that the situation is better than it is because the thought of ending the relationship is so painful. And really, when things are “good” the abuser can be extremely loving, attentive, and charming.
“Where will I go?” Frequently, an abuser maintains control of all the financial resources, so finding housing is an economic impossibility. Some victims are lucky to have supportive family or friends who can take them in, but many victims have been cut off from outside relationships. Shelters can provide basic necessities and many kinds of assistance, but shelters may be overcrowded or have a waiting list. And this may not be an option for abused men or for victims living in rural areas.
“I’m afraid of being deported.” Victims who are immigrants, legal or not, fear deportation if they lose their partner, and it may be that the abuser threatens their residency if they try to leave. Immigrants who have limited proficiency in English or who are not well acculturated in the United States are especially vulnerable.
“I’m afraid of what he/she will do if I try to leave.” Abusers may threaten victims who try to leave, saying they will find them and kill them. To a survivor of multiple beatings, this does not seem like an empty threat. Or an abuser may threaten, “I’ll take the children and you’ll never see them again” or “I’ll take you to court and have you declared an unfit parent.” Another tactic is to threaten suicide if the victim leaves. This may be punctuated by a dramatic gesture. The gesture may or may not be life threatening, but the point hits home. Some abusers will even injure or threaten to kill family pets.
“How will I make it on my own?” After years of verbal and emotional abuse — which always accompanies the physical — a victim’s sense of independence and self-efficacy are severely damaged. In many situations with female victims, she has been out of the labor market for years, by her choice or not, and may have few, if any, marketable job skills. She may face the prospect of trying to survive on minimum wage earnings until and unless she can arrange for child support.
“The children…” Though the children suffer in an abusive relationship, the victim often underestimates how much they are affected by the violence. The victim mistakenly believes that having both parents together is the best option. They may also fear that the children will blame them for “taking” the other parent from them.
“I made a commitment.” Married or not, if someone has entered into a committed relationship, they believe they have to see it to the bitter end: ‘til death us do part. Just hope that death does not come as the result of partner violence.
“But I love him/her.” Victims do love their abusers and have formed strong attachments — albeit unhealthy ones — to them. Unfortunately, they almost never realize that the abuser does not love them (or why would they repeatedly abuse?). Violent relationships are more about emotional dependence and control than love.
“I don’t want to be alone.” Pay attention to what this means to the victim. Years of abuse have taken a toll on self-confidence and self-esteem. At this point, a victim believes he or she is worthless, undeserving, disgusting, stupid and unattractive. The abuser has most likely been telling them these things repeatedly, but by now, it’s not necessary; the victim has internalized this self-concept. Another thing the abuser might be saying is “Who else would have you?” “Who else would put up with you, you worthless!!

“I’d be left with nothing.”
Victims fear loss of material things if they leave. Sometimes an abuser will threaten to take “everything”, the house, car and all the assets in order to intimidate the victim. In their vulnerable emotional state, victims believe these threats. And it is true sometimes that, in order to leave a very abusive and vindictive partner, some victims (and their children) leave with nothing but the clothes they are wearing.
“My religious beliefs don’t allow divorce.” Victims may stay with an abuser for religious reasons, and you can bet the abuser will remind the victim of his or her religious “obligations.” What victims don’t consider is that most religious leaders in western society nowadays recognize the special problem of partner violence and will counsel appropriately for safety, even if divorce is not a consideration.
Any one of these reasons may be enough to stop a victim from considering an escape, but usually several of these issues are at work. Men are as likely to stay with an abuser as women are, perhaps in part because despite Men’s advantage with regard to employment and access to financial resources, men have more legal vulnerability regarding access to their children.
So if you know someone who is in an abusive relationship, withhold the judgments. He or she is already getting plenty of that. Instead, listen. Express concern for their physical and emotional safety. Talk about how their children are doing. And yes, encourage them to leave if it seems appropriate. But be patient and understanding; you haven’t walked in their shoes.